Debate Over Sotomayor Nomination Examined

This week, President Obama's nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter dominated the airwaves. Regular political commentators E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times talk about the discussions around the nomination.

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The White House suggested today that the president's Supreme Court pick, Sonia Sotomayor, made a poor choice of words during a speech in 2001. Sotomayor was speaking about her Latina heritage and how it might affect her judging. And one line in particular has drawn attention. She said, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.

Well, for some thoughts on this, on Sonia Sotomayor's nomination and another news of the week, we're joined by our regular Friday political commentators, E.J. Dionne at The Washington Post. Hey, E.J.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Political Commentator, The Washington Post): How are you?

BLOCK: And David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back, David.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Political Commentator, The New York Times): Good to be with you.

BLOCK: And E.J., let's start with you on this White House message today coming out of the briefing with Robert Gibbs. This choice of the word, a better decision, I guess, is what they are trying to wrestle with here.

Mr. DIONNE: Well, the White House is spinning hard that the problem with that sentence is the word, better. You know, to me, what she was trying to say is that you may see the world more clearly from the bottom up than from the top down - that the less privileged sometimes see things that the more privileged don't see. The problem with the statement is it sounds like she's saying something bad about white men, of whom there are a quite lot in the U.S. Senate last time I looked.

BLOCK: Yeah, last I checked.

Mr. DIONNE: But, you know, when I hear Newt Gingrich or Rush Limbaugh sort of assailing this the way they are, if they held themselves to the same exacting standards for a lot of the things they have said in the past, I think they would voluntarily enter a Trappist monastery and be silent for 10 years.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DIONNE: So, I think this one's going to blow over.

BLOCK: Not going to happen. David Brooks, this was a lengthy speech. It's quite an interesting one, if you read the whole thing. Is it wrong to be focusing on this one word - a better conclusion?

Mr. BROOKS: No, first of all, Newt started at the bottom. So we got to respect his bottom-up news.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: You know, this was the whole crux of our argument. The crux of our argument was that she brings - and people like her - bring a unique perspective and, as she said, better perspective. In other speeches, she made the case - she argued against a woman named Judge Miriam Cederbaum, who was saying we should try to transcend our identities. And Sotomayor said, no, we can't do that. That's impossible.

BLOCK: She said we should aspire to do that, and sometimes we may still.

Mr. BROOKS: Right. Right. But she said - but it was a - clearly a much stronger case for a sort of identity politics or a multicultural view. And that is -that's a legitimate point of view that a lot of people represent. The question will be whether these views, which I think are not out of the mainstream, but strong identity politics views - whether they are, in fact, tied to her decisions. And I think the strength she will have is that most of her decisions are apparently very narrowly decided and case specific.

BLOCK: E.J., I'll get to you in just a second, but let's listen to how Judge Sotomayor spoke when she was introduced at the White House on Tuesday. She was talking about how the wealth of her experience has shaped her work as a judge.

Judge SONIA SOTOMAYOR (U.S. Circuit Court): It has helped me to understand, respect and respond to the concerns and arguments of all litigants who appear before me, as well as to the views of my colleagues on the bench. I strive never to forget the real world consequences of my decisions on individuals, businesses and government.

BLOCK: E.J., any particular words in there that jump out at you? I was struck, for example, by the fact that she included businesses in there.

Mr. DIONNE: Right, no, exactly. And what's interesting is if you look at her decisions, she made a lot of pro-business decisions. BusinessWeek said she's a moderate on business issues. I think, in some ways, she is the anti-John Roberts. You know, when Barack Obama gave his speech explaining why he was against John Roberts, he said that Roberts is clearly qualified, but he seems always, in what he does, to side with the strong against the weak. And that's where the empathy comes in.

But I think on this whole controversy, this most striking thing about her is that she's practiced her empathy from the middle of the road. Her - she is a very moderate judge, or if she's a liberal, a very moderate sort of liberal. And I think that's one of the reasons why - while some on the right have attacked her, most Republican Senators are holding their fire, because they know in their heart of hearts that she really is not going to be some kind of radical liberal.

BLOCK: David Brooks, do you see it that way? Do you think that she - based on what you know of how she's ruled so far - almost 20 years on the federal branch - would she tip the direction of the court?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I'm not sure she'd tip it. I think a lot of conservatives are holding their fire because she seems like a pretty respectable pick, very intelligent, very respectable, carefully decides things. A lot of them are secretly relieved that he didn't pick a Scalia, someone who is very aggressive on theoretical grounds. They're happy to take her.

And then I think the crucial issue - this all is going to come down, I think, to the Ricci case. This was the case of the New Haven firemen, some of whom studied - the dyslexic guy studied very hard for his test, passed the test, was denied a promotion because the results were not, according to the courts, race neutral. And this will be the test, whether she applied her identity politics, which comes out in the speeches, to a specific case, and frankly, to a case that appalls a lot of…

BLOCK: These are white firefighters…

Mr. BROOKS: White firefighters.

BLOCK: …who are still claiming reverse discrimination now getting reviewed by the Supreme Court, which is an interesting twist as her confirmation hearing approaches.

Mr. DIONNE: But what's important about that case, also, is that the panel she was on decided it three nothing. This is not just Sonia Sotomayor out on her own. Seven judges on the panel ended up agreeing with that decision. And even if it's reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court, if the vote is five to four, it's going to say that this is a very contested issue. And she was, after all, named to be part of that four - replacing Souter. So I think that you can hang too much on that case.

Mr. BROOKS: I just mention it because I think it's the one thing that could hang her up. There's a temperament issue, which doesn't seem to be going anywhere, but this is kind of politically explosive. There are a lot of people who are angry about discrimination, reverse discrimination. This is the one thing so far that could hang her up.

BLOCK: You mentioned temperament there, David, and this is something that's come up quite a bit in discussions about her, is her temperament on the benches. Is she abrasive? Is she hostile? I was struck by something in The New York Times today, David, your paper, her fellow Second Circuit Court Judge Guido Calabrese said that these complaints about her are unfounded. And his quote was "some lawyers just don't like to be questioned by a woman. It was sexist, plain and simple." Do you think there's a double standard here, E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: I do. I mean, if you look at Justice Scalia, he is a very tough questioner. When people look at that, they usually say, he's sharp, he's got a sense of humor. They don't - to sort of attack him in the way that she is being attacked in this case. You know, in a funny way, I think she may end up being somewhat more a liberal version of Sandra Day O'Connor because she is a stickler on the law, stickler on the fact. She doesn't bring some big philosophical agenda to this. That's why some liberals are disappointed in her. But it's also why I think she'll get confirmed with a lot of conservative votes, or at least a lot of Republican votes.

BLOCK: I want to steer this to the economy for just a bit here, because we are in a week where we've seen Chrysler in bankruptcy court. We could see GM headed there next week with the bailout. The government is going to have a 70 percent ownership stake in General Motors. David Brooks, what kind of shareholder is the government going to be?

Mr. BROOKS: A very bad one. You know, I think there are two things that are really damaging to the Obama administration - one is the deficits, which are running up. I notice income tax revenues are down 44 percent because of the economic news. But the auto bailout is just one bit of trouble after another. And the primary crux of the problem is that the government has two objectives -one to revive the auto industry, two to save energy and have an energy and environmental policy. Those two things tend to contradict. Because they're essentially going to be forced to have GM sell small cars - something, A, it's not good at, and B, which American consumers don't seem to want from it.

BLOCK: E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: You know, I think that the real test here, the public doesn't like the bailout right now. I think all that will matter is whether you get to say October of next year - that happens to be right before the mid-term elections -if GM is back running in a reasonable way and taxpayers have some sense they're going to get this money back, I think this whole deal is going to look better than it does today. And so they just got to be making decisions designed to keep GM in business. And I think that's what they're doing.

BLOCK: Okay, thanks to you both.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times.

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